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Architects should build for social need to restore status

Hugh Pearman

How the profession can take the lead again: design for society rather than market imperatives

Gordon Graham was the first RIBA president I knew, in office 1977-79, many years before I took this job. Old-school modernist, senior partner in ACP, liked his whisky and ciggies. I remember him sitting in the back of the coach, puffing away, in a 1979 trip to Paris organised by the resourceful Salaried Architects Group. Top of our agenda was of course the Pompidou Centre, then still fresh.

Almost 60 by then, Gordon was a high level architectural fixer. As president he was consulted on who should be the architect for the new Lloyd’s of London building, and was instrumental in getting both Richard Rogers and Norman Foster onto the competition roster to design it. Rogers of course won, and now his building is grade I listed.  Gordon went on to become CEO of Fosters as it was taking charge of the building of its international breakout building the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank HQ. So this now almost forgotten man was instrumental in a root-and-branch architectural revolution.  There have been some good presidents since, but none, I’d argue, with that kind of heft.

Then, just under half of all architects in the UK worked in the public sector. Large local council and central government architects’ departments, some with their own ‘­direct labour’ building contractors, were simply part of the landscape. RIBA Council was full of fine public architects such as Gordon Wigglesworth of the GLC and Kate Mackintosh of Southwark.  Jim Callaghan’s spending cuts were starting to hurt, but that was as nothing compared with what was to follow. The year of our study trip to Paris, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.

Is there the remotest chance of getting back to the state we might fondly imagine existed right up to the time of Gordon Graham?

You can argue about her legacy all you like but consider this: last year (2019-20) just 6,566 social-rented homes were built in England, close to a record low. Since Victorian times, the private sector left to its own devices has very seldom managed to make the sums add up on social housing.  UK land values are too high. The market does not provide.

The other constant over the years, nearly always featuring in the campaign pitches of would-be RIBA presidents, is the desire to recover the status and influence of architects. Is there the remotest chance of getting back to the state we might fondly imagine existed right up to the time of Gordon Graham?

The bad news is that it didn’t. A few years before in 1974, one of my predecessors in this chair, Malcolm MacEwen, wrote ‘Crisis in Architecture’, a polemic against the complacency of architects commendably published by the RIBA itself.  Architects, he wrote, had become ‘caught up in a social system that rewarded their most selfish and destructive impulses while repelling their most generous and creative ones’. They were responding to the market, not social demands, he argued.

Happily, some things have improved. In February we’ll be showing you the results of our RIBAJ MacEwen Award 2021. As ever, the strapline is ‘Architecture for the Common Good’.  There are some uncommonly good things there. Let them, I suggest, show a way forward for the profession.